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The Artist Abroad

Looking back to move forward

/ 09:27 PM February 08, 2016

NEW YORK CITY — February 4 has come and gone. I don’t know how many Filipinos realize the significance of this date—I suspect not many—but it marks two tumultuous events in the country’s history. The first introduced us to the twentieth century in a manner not of our choosing, while the second marked the beginning of the end of that phase, and the start of a new one.

With the first shot fired on February 4, the 1899 Philippine-American War, lasting more than a decade, brought the archipelago under the dominion of the rising imperialist power that was the United States. It marked the transformation of Las Islas Filipinas to the Philippine Islands, the linguistic switch symbolizing the transfer of ownership from a once-mighty Spain to the nation come late to the “Great Game,” as the competition among the planetary powers to subordinate the darker races was somewhat facetiously referred to. And so after the valiant and heroic but ultimately futile resistance to the immoral and illegal occupation by the gringos that surpassed the duration and ferocity of the much-remembered 1898 Spanish-American War, from being called “Indios” we were now categorized as the “White Man’s Burden,” a tag courtesy of Rudyard Kipling. Later on the more euphemistic “little brown brothers” became the preferred label, though the use of two modifiers clearly signaled the unequal and condescending nature of this faux fraternity.

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Fast forward to February 4, 1945, when the Battle of Manila began, one that resulted in an estimated 100,000 deaths and the once noble and royal city being reduced to rubble, pulverized on one side by the occupying Japanese army that was determined to fight to the death and on the other by U.S. forces equally determined to drive them out, unleashing tremendous artillery rounds to do so. From all accounts it was hell for the Manileños.

The bloody, brutal fight over the city was one of World War II’s deadliest, with Manila said to be the most devastated city after Warsaw (and setting aside the A-bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

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Retaking the islands from Japan was described as a war of liberation, and while the Japanese were indeed defeated, in what other sense was it a liberation? For the country was essentially a pawn in the struggle between two powers. Even when nominal independence was granted on July 4, 1946, what was once a formal colony now became a neo-colony—a supposedly democratic government still beholden to its erstwhile colonizer.

February 4th then bookends nearly half a century of U.S. colonial occupation.

As those who read this column know, I have written on these conflicts before, but every year I am reminded that these still remain partly if not totally relegated to the sidelines of U.S. history. It’s a blank in our collective memory, one I can’t resist attempting to fill in periodically. Is this gap due to the studied indifference of the mainstream? Certainly, but as bothersome as that is, I find something else that is more problematic and disturbing. My Filipino American students have practically no inkling of the historic relationship between the country of their parents and the United States.

They have little or no sense of their own historical context. And here I have to make it clear that my sense of this gap, an abyss even, is informed by the simple fact that my interaction is with East Coast students. From what I gather their West Coast counterparts know more about why they are here and not there—migration to the West Coast was much earlier than to the East, led by their forebears, the pioneering manong who endured racism, physical violence, and backbreaking work for little pay on farms, orchards, and canneries.

Of course chances are the parents of my East Coast students may themselves not know their own historical context. Even if they do, they tend to stress the here and now of assimilation. To them, the past is a burden that their kids need not carry into the American landscape. I understand and somewhat sympathize with this attitude. And yet they do their kids—and themselves—a disservice.

There is a Tagalog saying they would be familiar with: Ang hindi lumilingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan. Those who don’t look back at their origins will never get to their destination. Rather than being a burden, knowing our historical DNA enables us to navigate wisely, learning not just as we go along but from what has preceded us, so we are not, as the saying goes, condemned to repeat history. The late poet Alfrredo Navarro Salanga put it brilliantly in his poem “A Philippine History Lesson,” comparing the country to a luscious tropical fruit devoured by colonial powers. The result?

We’ve been bitten off, excised

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From the rind of things.

What once gave us pulp

Has been chewed off

And pitted—dry.

@Copyright L.H. Francia 2016

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TAGS: “White Man’s Burden, ” Rudyard Kipling, 1898 Spanish-American War, 1899 Philippine-American War, Alfredo Navarro Salanga, colonialism, Great Game, Las Islas Filipinas, Philippine Islands, U.S. colonialism Philippines
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